Review of Preventing Nuclear Meltdown

Pavel Podvig, Review of Moltz, James Clay, Vladimir A. Orlov, and Adam N. Stulberg, eds. Preventing Nuclear Meltdown: Managing Decentralization of Russia’s Nuclear Complex (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), The Russian Review, Volume 65, Number 1, January 2006, pp. 160-161.


Moltz, James Clay, Vladimir A. Orlov, and Adam N. Stulberg, eds. Preventing Nuclear Meltdown: Managing Decentralization of Russia’s Nuclear Complex. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004. xii + 258 pp. $89.95. ISBN 0-7546-4257-7.

A book on dangers of decentralization of Russia’s nuclear complex may seem somewhat untimely at the time when the Kremlin is busy strengthening the “vertical of power” and bringing Russian regions under ever closer control by eliminating gubernatorial elections. But as Preventing Nuclear Meltdown shows, we should not assume that the current centralization will be able to solve the problems of the Russian nuclear complex—they are too complex and diverse to be handled from Moscow. By demonstrating this complexity the book makes a strong case for closer attention to the problems that nuclear facilities spread over the vast Russian territory have to deal with. The book is a result of a study that was undertaken by a group of U.S. and Russian researchers in the early 2000s and that was prompted by concerns over the ability of the central government in Moscow to control nuclear facilities in regions, whose political power and influence had been steadily growing at the time. The most important result of this study is that these concerns proved largely unfounded. The evidence presented in the book shows quite convincingly that no region today has intent or capability to break from Russia or to interfere with operations of nuclear facilities on its territory.

The two larger parts that constitute the core of the book consider regional issues from different perspectives. The first part attempts to look at how various Russian governmental agencies— from the federal government to the Ministry of Atomic Energy (since then transformed into the Federal Atomic Energy Agency) and to the Ministry of Defense—interact with regional and local governments when they deal with nuclear issues. The problem here is that the definition of nuclear issues in the book is quite broad and includes electricity generation at nuclear power plants, nuclear weapon production infrastructure, or nuclear weapons deployed with military units. Not all of these issues get equal attention, though, and as a result we learn too much about the politics of the recent effort to reform the energy generation system and too little about the ways nuclear-related cities and facilities are integrated into regional economic and administrative structures.

The second part of the book contains detailed description of the four federal districts that have nuclear-related facilities on their territory (this list of districts is not complete, although it is probably representative). These chapters present a very interesting view of the complex and often informal relationships between the regions and the nuclear objects and cities on their territories. This is where it is becoming clear that economics is in the core of these relationships—the regions have no choice but to find ways to support the nuclear and military facilities when they fall on hard times, but are quite eager to demand their share of investment or assistance money (whether Russian or foreign) when these are forthcoming. Even though the authors are cautious not to make a definitive conclusion to this effect, the evidence presented in the book quite strongly supports it.

The final part of the book contains a very useful overview of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the problems it encounters in Russian regions. The final chapter, summarizing the book’s findings, underscores that even though strong and independent regions are harder to deal with, they can play vital role in providing accountability and transparency of the nuclear complex, which is the most reliable way to ensure its safety and security. We can only regret that Russian government has taken a quite different approach to its regions.

Pavel Podvig, Stanford University